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Before President Trump relented and quietly agreed to unfreeze $391 million in security aid to Ukraine on Sept. 11, days after he learned about a whistleblower complaint, the withheld aid was the subject of 84 days of confused, increasingly tense fighting between Trump and his budget team and Pentagon officials, U.S. diplomats, and Trump's hand-picked national security leaders, The New York Times detailed in a report Sunday based on interviews with dozens of officials and previously undisclosed emails and documents.
Everyone but Trump was eager for the aid to be released, and White House lawyers eventually crafted but never released a legally dubious argument for why Trump could continue to withhold it, defying Congress and federal laws on spending allocated funds, the Times reports. "The Democratic-led inquiry into Mr. Trump's dealings with Ukraine this spring and summer established that the president was actively involved in parallel efforts — both secretive and highly unusual — to bring pressure on" Kiev by withholding desperately needed funds and forcing the public launch of politically advantageous investigations.
Now, key officials are claiming they either knew about only one of those efforts or never connected the dots. But from the beginning, the White House knew Trump's order could be explosive, emails show.
Trump first ordered the Office of Management and Budget to withhold the Ukraine funds on June 19 — OMB officials, using Google, surmised that somebody had shown Trump a Washington Examiner article on the U.S. sending military aid to Ukraine to help it fend off Russian-backed separatists. Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, a central figure in coordinating the freeze, asked his aide Robert Blair in a June 27 email, "Did we ever find out about the money for Ukraine and whether we can hold it back?" Blair responded yes, it would be possible, but he should "expect Congress to become unhinged" if it found out, the Times reports. In fact, the House impeached Trump.
In late August, the Times reports, Trump was finally confronted in the Oval Office by National Security Adviser John Bolton, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, each of whom made their case for unfreezing the aid. Trump again said no. It still isn't clear why Trump relented two weeks later, but House Democrats have an idea. "He got caught," Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel told the Times. Read more about those intense 84 days at The New York Times.